Putting exceptional chefs through a trial by fire with Top Chef, Magical Elves co-founder Jane Lipsitz subsequently moved to the opposite end of the culinary spectrum, celebrating the (often failed) efforts of amateurs with Netflix competition series Nailed It!
Based on an internet meme phenomenon where novice cooks try to recreate edible masterpieces, the series watches as laymen take their shot at greatness in pursuit of a $10,000 prize.
Learning the ropes of the chef’s world after other notable unscripted efforts including Project Runway and Project Greenlight, Lipsitz embraced and was challenged by the limited skill set her Nailed It! contestants brought to the table.
From a producing standpoint, the unpredictability of what would unfold in Season 1—with amateurs cooking against the clock—was an obstacle to contemplate. But it was also the delightful end goal, a core aspect of the series’ brand.
“There’s definitely a certain freedom in producing Nailed It!, where you sort of embrace the disasters, much like the show,” Lipsitz says.
An airy, feel-good series tailor-made for a country gripped in drama, Lipsitz’ effort with Nailed It! is reflective of her general mission to expand the contours of reality television, finding new ideas that can be embraced. “I don’t think anything’s going to truly break out unless you do something different in this day in age,” the EP says. “I think people really like authenticity, and I think that you have to pay attention to what’s happening in our country, and the world around you.”
How did Nailed It! come about? What was it about this series that jibed with Magical Elves’ brand?
Magical Elves has a lot of history and experience in the culinary space, but we’re always trying to think of ways to reinvent the space. We were having a brainstorm specifically targeting that category, and in the development meeting, one of our executives pulled up Pinterest and showed us a couple of the photographs of ‘Nailed It’—the before and after. The first reaction was just laughter. There was such a fun and positive feeling in the room at that moment that we said, “We have to figure this show out.”
We spent some time putting together a pitch around it, and it was really just celebrating failure, basically. [laughs] We’d spent a lot of time with really high-end chefs, so this was the opposite, but still captured the spirit of what people love about cooking, or baking in particular. Then we put together a deck, we took it out to Netflix, and they bought it in the room.
Having covered a great deal of territory in the unscripted space, what has drawn you to hone in on the culinary space in recent years?
A lot of Magical Elves shows are about the creative process, and watching people trying to achieve their dreams. That’s always been of interest to us. Top Chef was born out of our relationship with Bravo doing Runway, and we’ve grown to love the chef word. I think Top Chef coincided with the birth of the celebrity chef, so we were sort of in the zeitgeist in that. We also had done Top Chef: Just Desserts at some point, so we knew a lot about the beauty, fun and inspiration amazing desserts can bring. It’s not necessarily a personal hobby, but I do love the culinary world.
When we thought about Nailed It!, we loved the idea of these amazing creations that people truly do aspire to make, not always achieving their goal—and celebrating that. Not a lot of viewers are expert chefs, but Nailed It! is a show that everyone can relate to. We’ve always loved how universal Nailed It! is.
What was the process in finding your format for the series?
Because Nailed It! is out of the box, in term of cooking shows, we wanted to keep elements that were familiar. It wasn’t a parody of those shows, but because it had humor, we wanted to keep the format familiar to the language of baking shows, and other culinary shows, so that is was easy to understand. It’s a half-hour format; there’s two challenges. That was the basic place we started from.
Then, we just had a ton of fun coming up with the challenges, in terms of theme. Because [the show]’s connected to something real that exists in the world and on the Internet, we wanted to use some of the most iconic versions of that. The princess cake that you see, you see tons of those fails that are posted. When we were thinking of the challenges, we wanted to stay connected to the place where this came from.
What was the thinking in putting the series’ core talent together, including host Nicole Byer, chocolatier Jacques Torres and your variety of guest judges?
I think originally when we were thinking about the host, we did want someone really funny. That was our number one goal. Originally I think we were thinking more of someone who was comedic, but also had experience in baking. Then when we saw Nicole, she’s so funny and so different that we thought to actually put Nicole in this environment, that would be even more interesting.
Once we had Nicole, we thought, we do want people to have takeaways from the show. It’s important that they walk away with some baking tips. We thought the combination of Nicole with a very high-end French pastry chef would be genius. Jacque is a premier chocolatier. He’s also just so lovely, but we never imagined this romance that would evolve out of their relationship. Not a real romance, but a love for each other that’s so adorable. They just have a great chemistry that I don’t think we could ever have dreamed of.
In terms of guest judges, we wanted to sometimes balance it out, depending on the challenge, with other established and talented pastry chefs. Sylvia Weinstock is one of our favorite guest judges of all time. She’s not only the preeminent wedding cake creator, but just an incredible woman. When we didn’t fill the quest judge spots with established pastry chefs, we went for people like celebrities who apply to the challenge in some way. Its good to have some fun, too. We’re definitely trying to not take ourselves too seriously.
When you’re looking for elite talents for a show like Top Chef, the selection process must be somewhat clear-cut. But what is the process when you’re culling from a wide pool of amateurs?
I think we were just trying to find a cross section of America—age-wise, ethnicity, geography, all of those things. We were also looking for people who genuinely were passionate about baking who might not have the skills to apply that, who could actually walk away with a little bit of improvement at the end of the show. It was a very instinctual casting process, I’d say.
It was the first time we’d done it. There was no way to access the skill level in a way that we knew 100% how each challenge would turn out. We really had no idea how amateur bakers would be able to execute some of these things. We had the freedom to know that if they fail, that could be just as amazing as if they were successful.
We just wanted people who were funny, felt like they cared, and felt like they were going to have a good time. Also, it was important to find people who had good backstories, who wanted money for a real reason. There were a lot of factors that went into casting on this. It took a while, but I feel like all of Nailed It! is lightning in a bottle.
Can you expand on the challenges of producing a show of this nature, capturing the amateur baking process in real time?
A first season of this kind of thing is always really challenging, because you don’t know if you’ve given them enough time, or too much time. Particularly because they’re amateurs, as opposed to experienced pastry chefs that know how to manage their time in a kitchen, it was definitely nerve-wracking going into the first couple of episodes.
We had no idea what was going to happen, but what we did know is that almost immediately, everyone was laughing. I always pay attention to the reaction of the crew that’s working on our shows. I use that often as the gauge of whether we have something successful or not. If they’re laughing and enjoying themselves, and are interested, that’s usually a really good sign.
I’ve never really experienced such a feel-good environment on a set before as I did doing Nailed It!. It felt like even the problems, because of the format, we could embrace them. Like when Jay [Chandrasekhar, guest judge] had to go. [laughs] He came in and said, “I’m having a situation at home. I have to go.” On any other show that would have been a true disaster, but on this it just turned into an incredibly hilarious feat where Nicole was calling him like, “Where are you?”
Season 1 ended with a surprising moment in which contestants were tasked with creating a Donald Trump cake. It was interesting to watch each contestant’s differing response to this idea. What was the thinking behind this moment?
I think Nailed It! is about the world we live in. In an odd way, it’s about the images that people access, and pop culture, and what’s happening in the world around them. This is the president of our country, for better or for worse.
We felt like we wanted to do something where they were doing a face, because it’s an interesting thing to have them do a real person. Because then, you can really judge it easily. It just felt like we should do Trump, and it turned into an interesting way to look at people’s visions of him. I personally enjoyed the really scary one.
Several months ago, Nailed It! was picked up for a second season. Why do you think the show is resonating at this point in time?
I think people are tired of waking up to really, really bad news. I do feel like the mood of the country has something to do with the fact that Nailed It! just was this really feel-good show that didn’t require a lot of effort, that you can watch with your kids. I think it was the right moment in time for this show.
Is it daunting, trying to conceive of new concepts for unscripted television that will resonate?
It’s definitely hard to predict what’s going to break out. We had a really good feeling about Nailed It! because it felt different. But who knew? The incredible response in social media and the success of Nailed It!, we don’t take that [for granted]. This is a totally crazy show to put on the air. But I think the thing is, it’s ultimately about taking risks. Not being afraid.